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The temperature cooled as we moved deeper into the valley behind the lake. We had abandoned the lake, the Tianchi National Park’s main tourist draw, looking for something wild.
We followed the concrete spillway up the creek as the sun dropped below the encircling mountains. The sprinkler system gave way to a wall of Pines along the valley floor. A dirt road running parallel to the spillway, wound up a hill and crossed over a large dam controlling the water draining into Tianchi. In China, nothing goes undammed.
Beyond the dam, the dirt road slimmed down. The spillway ended. The creek was free, bound only by the hand-made engineering efforts of the Kazakh herders who had once occupied this valley.
Wild green peaks leaped forward from the valley. Beyond them, we could see the snow-clad Bogda Peak, an almost 18,000 foot monster peeking out from behind. We were only two miles from the sprinkler system of the southern shore and six miles from the speedboats of the northern shore, but we were moving into something that felt wild. We saw no one and felt few signs of human presence.
We laid our packs down in an almost untouched valley a ways up from the dam. Thirty feet below, a glacier-fed creek roared past the site. We laid out our tent and prepared to make camp.
We laid the tent onto a thick carpet of mountain meadow grass. Nearby, we found a pile of gravel dumped for some unknown purpose and used it as a base for our cook fire, boiling water and cooking ramen. That day was Galen’s birthday, so we shared a pack of birthday cake-flavored Oreos, sitting quietly and thinking. The night sky emerged, and the temperature dropped into the forties.
The next morning, we left our tent for an hour to climb on some of the ridges lingering above the valley, hoping to get a better view of Bogda Peak. Galen and I tried to reach the ridge via two different routes. Galen struggled straight up, while I went for the longer but easier way around the side. By the time I got to the ridge, Galen was nowhere to be seen.
I stayed calm at first, calling out Galen’s name several times. No response. He must be here somewhere, I thought. He could not have passed above me; I would have seen him. I shouted his name several more times, pacing the ridge. Still no sign of him. Now I began to worry. Had he fallen somewhere where I could not see him? Was he unconscious? Fear crept into me.
The grassy valley and fir-clung hillsides spread out beneath me. Beneath me, I could see our tent, a speck almost half a mile away. Wind was the only response I received each time I shouted, “Galen.” Otherwise, the world was silent.
It was then that I realized how alone I was. There was no one there. Not far off, crowds pulsed against the lakeside, but here, there was no one. I felt abandoned.
Several minutes passed, and, after shouting more, I heard the hint of a whistle. Galen soon came into sight, traipsing down beneath me. Somehow, he had passed me as I had climbed up onto the ridge.
Yet the moment stuck with me. In China, it feels difficult to escape the almost smothering feeling of humanity. In fact, in China’s west, that feeling of solitude is not all that far off, I realized.
We returned to our site, packed up our tent and left the silence of this wild space.